I Hate Small Groups…but I Love Discipleship

Allow me to create the hurt.

Imagine that your ministry is everything you have ever wanted it to be. Let’s be honest, it’s the most attractive thing happening on a weekly basis. Your social media feed is full of pictures of dimly lit rooms with amazing stage lights and the best looking people lifting their hands to Jesus during worship, you have EVERY person engaged in a small group, and your lead pastor has given you a budget that you can’t deplete by the end of the year if you tried.  Best. Job. Ever.

Now imagine with me that in that same ministry your key influencers are still struggling between praising on Sundays and partying on weekends, your ministry has a huge revolving door on it, and many of your people are falling away from Jesus. What went wrong?

Unfortunately, this story is all too common amongst churches across our movement. Historically, we have attempted to remedy this by “getting into the lives” of our people on a more relational level with hopes that it would open the door to discipleship. Systematize this desire and you have small groups: A place where a select group of people can connect in the home of a peer or a leader, build relationship, and know Jesus.

Now before I bring my two cents into the conversation, let me give you the other $0.98. I think small groups are VITAL to ministry in the informational age we live in. They create an atmosphere where the 3 big needs of this generation are met: access, engagement, and community. It makes serving Jesus less about an event and more about a family. I think they’re great…really, I do. But here’s my beef…for all the time and effort we put into creating a stellar system of small groups where community and relationship is cultivated, we at the same time allow this to be our primary vehicle for discipleship. Yes, we might create curriculum to place into the hands of the small group leader, but all we are doing is placing knowledge in their hands without creating within them a competency to disseminate that knowledge.

I have seen, all too often, small group leaders carry the desire for their groups to be popular, inviting, and approachable which at times can lead to one watering down their content so as not to drive anyone away. This leads to our groups not becoming “discipleship-based,” but places for those whose faith has turned into a moralistic, therapeutic religion where the mantra is, “I want to feel like a good person and feel like I belong, but don’t make me feel like I’m less or I may turn and leave.” Thus, creating pressure for the leader to water it down.

Can I share a secret with you? This is how my small groups used to be. Everything I described above was my first 2 years of ministry to a “T”. In the process of being dissatisfied with the way I saw my small groups going, I began to study how others were making it happen successfully, recreated my model, and identified a few things that were necessary to implement if I was to turn it all around:

  1.  Quality over quantity.
    In the hustle to have the highest number of small groups around I automatically qualified every one of my volunteer leaders to be small group leaders. Bad idea. In the effort to feel better about my faux discipleship process I made it look big and shiny, but there was no substance. Start with a small pool of leaders, raise their competency, and then began to recruit more.
  2. Competency over knowledge.
    Successful small groups go well beyond curriculum. If all I had to do to fulfill the Great Commission was present information, I would have my “well done good and faithful servant” status early and could have coasted into Heaven. But the Bible asks us to be more than walking Systematic Theology books; it asks us to “study to show ourselves approved.” What won for me was a monthly small group leader session where I emulated the elements of a small group, but did so on a macro level. Discipleship requires both process and proximity and if I am going to raise the competency level of my leaders I have to get them close to me and get into their personal process.
  3. Relationship isn’t the outcome; discipleship is.
    Hear me when I say this, PLEASE don’t miss an opportunity to disciple people simply because you think it will offend them and ruin your relationship with them. Know that walking with Christ comes with a cost, that’s why discipleship is so necessary. Discipleship means you go beyond presenting the information and actually take that information and make it a part of their process. This requires time and effort, but it is also what our Lord commanded.

I know you know this, but we are called to make disciples of all nations, not small groups of all nations. If we make discipleship our primary agenda, then our small groups will thrive and flourish as a result.